The Magazine

Traitor in Embryo

A famous spy’s first steps toward betrayal.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It will probably never be known how many people died because they were betrayed by Kim Philby to the NKVD, or its successor, the KGB. Konstantin Volkov, a KGB agent working under diplomatic cover as a consular officer in Istanbul in 1945, is just one standout example. For the sum of £5,000, Volkov offered to defect to the British with a treasure trove of intelligence information: the names of 314 KGB agents in Turkey and 250 in Britain. He also claimed to have the names of senior British intelligence officers who were working as double agents for the Soviet Union. He quite possibly knew about Philby’s longtime work for Moscow.

Kim Philby meets the press, London, 1955.

Kim Philby meets the press, London, 1955.

getty images

Philby, then heading the Section IX counterintelligence section of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), was ordered to Istanbul by the head of SIS in order to arrange for Volkov to be expatriated safely to England. He dragged his feet in getting there, meanwhile passing along to Moscow all the information Volkov claimed to have available. By the time Philby made it to Istanbul, Volkov had been kidnapped by the Russians, swathed in bandages, and then shipped back to Moscow on a Soviet military plane. There he was interrogated and summarily executed. 

Philby was the most prominent—and certainly the most dangerous—of a group of British traitors who came to be known as the Cambridge Five. They included diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who defected to Moscow in 1951, and the art historian Anthony Blunt, revealed publicly in 1979 to have been a spy for Moscow since shortly after graduating from Cambridge.  

Why and how did Harold Adrian Russell Philby come into a life as an intelligence officer and then a double life as a KGB informant within British intelligence? The usual motives of people who become spies and then traitors to their own country are described by analysts of intelligence as falling into the acronym MICE: Money, Ideology, Compromise/Control by another country’s spy agency, and Ego. Since Philby defected to Moscow from Beirut in 1963, and then wrote a memoir of his double life, My Silent War (1968), it has come to be generally accepted that he was a heart-and-soul convert, almost in a religious sense, to Moscow’s global Marxist-Leninist agenda.

This basic reckoning of the Philby phenomenon is probably true and is affirmed by Edward Harrison. The consensus view, however, fails to deal with other important questions: Was Philby living out his own version of the colorful antics of his father, the convert-to-Islam Arabist and sometime intelligence officer St. John Philby? At what point did Philby’s attraction to communism become the core of a danger-prone life providing intelligence to the enemy and going against everything his country stood for?

This remarkable, intriguing, and highly detailed study of Philby in his early years answers many of these questions. Harrison has done the historical record a favor by going through recently declassified SIS records and matching what they tell about Philby with Russian academic research into those parts of the NKVD archives that became available to scholars after 1991.

Philby was drawn to the ideals of international socialism while still a scholar at Westminster School, which his father had also attended. Westminster’s assistant head-master was an idealistic clergyman who preached that there was a fundamental flaw in capitalism and that young people should serve the world less selfishly. He was a great enthusiast for the League of Nations. But it was at Cambridge that Philby was first attracted to communism, becoming an enthusiastic member of the Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS). A Cambridge lecturer, Maurice Dobb, was doing his best to persuade CUSS members to go for the heady brew of revolutionary communism rather than the less violent alternative of, say, Fabian socialism. 

It was through a connection of Dobb’s that Philby set off after Cambridge for Vienna, where he worked to protect German and Austrian refugees from the Nazis. There he married Litzi Friedmann, an older divorcée who had spent time in an Austrian prison for her Communist activities. It was through his wife’s connections that Philby was first introduced to an NKVD control officer in London.